Sunday’s Oscars belonged to “Parasite.” And for Choi Woo-shik, the night must have felt worlds away from his days growing up in Coquitlam, B.C.
That’s right, the actor who plays Kim Ki-woo in Bong Joon-ho’s Korean thriller grew up in the Vancouver suburb after he immigrated there with his parents when he was 10 and became a citizen. And his story of trying to find his place is so Canadian and will sound familiar to any kid who grew up between cultures.
Choi, now 29, shared details about his life in Canada in a lengthy interview he did in 2012 for Star English, a Korean talk-show series where hosts interview celebrity guests in English. Choi is fluent in English from his time in Canada, but he had to learn it the hard way.
“I basically had no idea about English and had no idea about making foreigner friends, because of cultural differences,” he said. He was a shy 10-year old who didn’t have much in the way of conversational skills.
Then, there was the matter of his lunch.
“One day, I brought my rice and kimchi and side dishes because I didn’t know, and I just brought a whole bunch of food with me, and then they were like, ‘Oh, what’s that smell?’”
And, as anyone who’s been teased for having a different lunch knows, kids can be so mean.
“They were like, ‘Oh, that’s the new guy from Korea, but he smells.’ So they didn’t come and talk to me.”
So Choi did what many kids did: he told his mom not to send him to school with kimchi anymore.
She didn’t listen. “It was kind of like a bomb,” he said.
Luckily, that’s what good friends are for. Choi Woo-shik said he soon made some solid friends — 14 of them in fact, and all Korean. “They kind of backed me up.” And things started to turn around from there.
His new group of friends included other Asians, and they found a solution to the lunchtime bullying: they had an “Asian table,” where they could eat their “smelly” food in peace.
Choi went on to attend Pinetree Secondary School in Coquitlam. “High school was really fun,” he said, pointing out the difference from Korea, where the focus for students is on academic studies. “I had lots of friends, I had activities, like basketball teams.
“When I was studying in Canada, we were so free.”
He went onto Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C, where he pursued an arts degree.
But then came the “tipping point,” as his mother called it. Choi had always wanted to be an actor in Korea. After an online audition, he begged his parents to let him go to Korea to continue the process in person. They didn’t like it, but finally relented and lent him money for the trip.
The rest, as they say, is history. Choi moved back to his birthplace and had his share of auditions and rejections, eventually signing with JYP Entertainment group. In 2016, he flourished in his breakout role in “Train To Busan,” followed by another Bong Joon-ho-directed picture, “Okja,” which is available on Netflix.
These days, Choi hangs out with V, of K-pop super boy band, BTS.
But in 2012, he spoke highly of those 14 school friends he calls the FF14 — “Friends Forever 14” — that he made in Canada: “They’re really reliable. I can really talk about stuff with them.”
In the end, even the lunchtime teasing turned into something useful.
“Because of those hard times, I think I built up more ... flexible characteristics ... with friends and with people,” Choi said.
And just look at him now.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Bong Joon Ho’s name.
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